Issue #23, 2006

Ștefan Constantinescu and Tom Sandqvist

1. What is the role you want to play in art life?

-Dear Ștefan, I don’t know if I properly understood your question or maybe – after all – you want to ask me something entirely different. In the first place, I imagine it would have been much more difficult to respond to you question if you would have asked for my personal view on my role within art life in the past and present. Secondly, I wonder what art life are you refer to. The Swedish, the Finnish, the international one? I’m trying to be as honest as possible. Since you ask me of what role I am trying or striving for to play, the answer becomes a simple, though seemingly dull one: none. Believe me or not, but after acting as an art critic, curator, writer, researcher and teacher for so many years, the idea of striving for a specific position or playing a particulat role has become more and more unfamiliar to me. Generally speaking, I am not striving for any particular role in the art life any more.

2. What is your credo, what are your principles as an art theoretician?

-I think I have became more and more interested in trying – to the best of my ability – to draw attention, to render visible and, at the same time, to problematize the ideohistorical dimensions of art. At the same time, since I began working as a professional theoretician, I have tried to anchor the present to the historical process,           the same way I have tried to observe and render visible the interdisciplinary field of knowledge.

3. Why did you leave Stockholm and move to a small country village?

-I have left neither Stockholm, nor Helsinki, Berlin, New York, London, Vienna, Paris, Rome, Venice, Warsaw, Vilnius, St. Petersburg, Moscow, Ljubljana nor Bucharest. Indeed, it’s true, I live with Ann (Edholm) in a former school, in a large, old and undescribably beautiful wooden building built in 1906 near a small stone church from the 13th century, about an hour from the Swedish capital. In this village we have not only Tristan, our black cat, named after Samuel Rosenstock, here we also have long discussions with an expert in acoustics, several peasants, two architects, three writers, two priests, two doctors, two psychotherapeuts, a carpenter, a babysitter, an illustrator, an actor, a specialist in drugs, a psychologist, a professor in theoretical physics, two singers, a silversmith, a textile artist, a museum manager. No, I have not left neither Stockholm, nor Helsinki, Berlin, New York, London, Vienna, Paris, Rome, Venice, Warsaw, Vilnius, St. Petersburg, Moscow, Ljubljana, nor Bucharest.

4. Why do you show so much interest in Romanian avant-garde?

-My interest in Romanian avant-garde have decreased significantly after working on my book about Dadaism, since I now have started working on Central and Eastern European Modernism from a significantly larger perspective. But the Romanian avant-garde has, of course, a special place in the thematic area I work in, which I try to understand to the best of my ability at the same time having those intense discussions with a cat named after Samuel Rosenstock. And doesn’t the Romanian avant-garde reminds of the inhabitants in Sholem Aleichem’s Kasrielevskij? The inhabitants of this small Eastern European town are, in a most unbelievable manner, up to date, internationally oriented, enthusiastic, daring and innovative, but also suspicious and skeptical. Of course they heard about cities with brick houses, buildings with several floors, sidewalks, electricity and other modern gimmicks; but to belive in something like a train, with the locomotive carrying wagons on a steel rail, it’s quite different, this was a real meltdown for credulous peasants, for priests dressed in caftans, for bartering merchants. And one day, the unthinkable happened. One of the city’s merchants got the opportunity to visit Moscow and, after coming back, he told the naïve, but at the same time unberable curios crowd, gathered at the central plaza pub, that in fact he took a train ride of almost one hour, really. He himself hardly believed his eyes: there seemed to be no horses, although the carriage was big and clearly heavy, not in front of the locomotive, nor behind the train or inside the wagons. It was obvious and undeniable: he lived through a miracle, and a true one, too. He sweared on everything a Jew holds holy that everything was true of what he was telling. What was to believe? On the one hand, why would a good friend, an honest person and, in every respect, a respected merchant and family head risk his immortal soul by telling stories about things that didn’t exist? On the other hand, how could one let himself fouled by the traveller’s fables and stories? No! There was only one way to solve the dilemma: the crowd decided that every word of the merchant was true, but they refused to believe in the train.

5. What should a young artist know?

-He or she should know that the bell rings at five to twelve at least twice a day.    

6. How important is it for you to teach, to be a professor?

-For me it is as unimportant to be a professor as it is so indescribable important to teach.    

7. Why are you so active regarding the immigration issue?

-Except for writing a book about my experiences as an immigrant in Sweden moving to the country some twenty years ago, I’m not that active when it comes to questions regarding the immigrants, even though I always seem interested in that cultural and social identity which results from what Marx calls “die Lückenposition”, that is the cultural identity depending on being  in a constantly challenging grey area, between fixed cultural affiliations. Maybe that’s why I’m interested not only in the Romanian avant-garde and Dadaism, but also in Central and Eastern European cultures. This is where the identities collide, without withering away. Born and grown up in Finland within a linguistic and cultural minority, I want to defend the right of the minorities of being right – I believe that an authentic democracy must be built on the basis of understanding the fact that an encounter is not an authentic one if you are not confronted with the Otherness of yourself as well. In this context, I cannot avoid referring to Julia Kristeva, who, in her book Etrangers à nous mêmes (1988), reminds us of our possibilities in a world in which, for the first time in history, we may live with those who are different without having to squeeze our differences into an assimilating unity. A paradoxical community is about to arise, Kristeva says, consisting of strangers accepting each other inasmuch they can feel themselves as strangers. Consequently, according to Kristeva, this multinational society will emerge out of extreme individualism, but – and this is very important –, an individualism which acknowledges its own difficulties and limitations and which experiences the weakness of the indominable readiness to help the other, “a weakness whose other name is the deeply rooted otherness of all of us”.

8. What do you think about the fact that The National Museum of Contemporary Art is in the Ceaușescu’s former House of the People?

-I will quote from myself, starting from the statements made in my book Dacia 1300. my generation (2003):  “Indeed, can already the fact that the whole of the old Uranus district was torn down together with large parts of the Rahova and Antim quarters ever be a source of myths and poetry when we at the same time know about the hardships of the former inhabitants and especially those slave-like conditions under which the workers were forced to work? No, of course not. There is no reconciliating poetical or authentically mythological in the systematic destruction of the old quarters of Bucharest officially legitimated by both the disastrous earthquake of 1977, which killed approximately 2,000 individuals, and the ‘revolutionary spirit’ which was to characterize the ‘modernization’ of the city, when the excavators took 26 care of the historical and religious heritage, for instance, the historian and politician Nicolae Iorga’s villa built at the turn of the century, the legendary Brâncovenian Hospital from 1800, and the Văcărești Monastery built in the 18th century just outside the city. According to some sources, the space around the Văcărești complex was initially reserved for the building of a leisure park as big as Disneyland. In the directly affected areas of the city five Orthodox churches were demolished in 1984 and additional three in 1985 together with three churches and a synagogue a year later. In 1987 six churches were demolished. Several architectural monuments of commemorative value (churches or historical monuments) were either moved a few yards or completely hidden behind the new multi-storey buildings. The apparence of Bucharest was completely distorted when, for instance, the Mihai-Vodă church built around 1500 was literally rolled on big logs more than 200 metres away to be hidden behind new buildings. Magris’s romantic description presents the Romanian dictator as a man who, far from moving and demolishing, did nothing else but dragged an 18th century church a little bit away and tied a chapel onto a tenement house that might have been built more than a century later. If the two units didn’t fit, he would cut a piece off and simply throw it away. Ceaușescu changed the city arrangement and its planimetry as candidly as a child playing in the sand; he was, Magris says, the supreme forwarding agent, the owner of the haulage business who wrapped up the stage settings of the previous centuries. The destruction didn’t affect only the areas intended to make way for the House of the People and Unirii Blvd. but also other parts of the city once called ‘little Paris of the Balkans’ were erased literally overnight to make way for another grand work, a governmental office, a Sports Palace, or some other official building in the same monumental post-stalinist style with a profoundly eclectic character. When it comes to, for instance, the area around Morii Lake, the authorities didn’t even bother to see if people were at home. They just threw their furnitures and clothes in the street before the excavators started to work. Graveyards were covered with concrete or transformed into artificial lakes while the families were bluntly asked to remove their dead ones 24 hours or at most two days before.”

9. What do you think about the Swedish  artistic climate?

-It doesn’t seem like a very intellectual one or especially curious of anything else except itself or things that are most close to it, that is the Anglo-American contexts.

10. How do you feel about working with me?

-I believe in the train.

Translated by Alex Moldovan and revised by Tom Sandqvist